Is there anybody out there?
Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely, getting old
Can you feel me?Hey You – Pink Floyd
In my career as an SAP consultant I worked in different countries for an extensive number of customers. I participated in innumerable projects for relatively small companies to corporate giants. At the same time, I got to work with many people, from junior to senior, from wannabe to real expert. People from around the world. They call home places I have never heard of before. While having a different background, the people I met shared on thing in common: SAP knowledge. Knowledge you don’t gain easily. Not only how to code ABAP, but how an SAP module works, how a process is realized in SAP, how different modules work together. At one point in their live they decided to learn SAP and chose it as their career path. They got hired, assigned to a project, attended training, and most importantly, invested a huge part of their time to learn SAP. It takes time, more time and passion. Many of them showed that they are willing to spend more time than others to become better at SAP. Some even decided to share their knowledge: blog posts, articles, speaker.
And here is something that makes me think: these people are leaving the SAP world. People that invested heavily into their SAP career are leaving. And they are not coming back. While this is OK and a normal process, I do not see the same amount of people entering the SAP universe or staying long enough to turn into experts.
Sometimes the departure is a slow goodbye, taking months, sometimes only weeks. Together with their company and/or project, they are transitioning away from SAP. Instead of opting to use SAP for a new solution, company decided to implement a different solution or building a new one, just not with SAP. Maybe leaving SAP is not the right wording: they stay on their (career) path; SAP is just not capable to follow them.
One thing about good SAP professionals is that they need to understand the business process they implement via SAP. The process is what the company makes unique, the system is only there to run the process. An SAP professional, even the hard-core ABAP developer, is normally flexible enough to understand and implement the business process in another tool. Possessing process knowledge allows SAP professionals to transition to another area or product easily.
Going to a different area is totally normal. The difference is that previously there were enough new SAP projects and new people were joining these. There was always a “new generation” coming in and taking over. As competition gets tougher, the SAP share is inside companies is shrinking. The constant stream of new people automatically coming into SAP is drying up.
SAP is complex. It is used to run business processes around the world. As the world is complex, so are the processes, and so is SAP. The knowledge you need to add value to a company as an SAP professional is not easy to gain. At least 3 factors are important to gain SAP expertise:
Why should this bother you? A shortage of skills is a problem. When companies have problems filling positions or must invest additional money to fill them, they start looking for alternatives. This is not fair for the SAP universe. An SAP project rarely starts from zero with no legacy. At the same time, the number of no-legacy-all-fun projects in the non-SAP world is higher. Even when in the back there is an SAP system involved, it is treated as a system of records and the complex part of the project is then outsourced to another (SAP) team. The fancy technology, easy to learn as no legacy or existing process needs to be considered is attracting the new generation.
Understanding the SAP universe is not easy, entering it is: get hired and assigned to a project. Yet, really entering the SAP world as a professional is hard work. You cannot fool everyone all the time. Building a reputation means to deliver constantly quality work. To achieve this, you need to learn, apply it and experience. Only when you combine these 3 factors, you can learn and master SAP.
Essentially, you cannot learn SAP outside a customer project. And customers don’t always give juniors access to their SAP systems. Partners then need experienced people that they can staff on projects. Without prior knowledge, you must start somewhere, and official trainings are a great starting point. To get a training is a good idea and SAP offers trainings. Problem: SAP wants money. Getting a training from your employer approved can already be the first reason why not to choose an SAP career. Some employers even demand that you sign a contract that makes you pay back the invested money for an SAP training when you leave in 1 to 3 years. Learning Node.js, Typescript, React, Web or Android development is easier (and cheaper). The bias is still that it is super complicated to set up an ABAP development environment compared to Java or Swift / iOS (also costly). Entering the non-SAP world is easier and cheaper.
Don’t be fooled: all trainings are worth nothing if you do not apply your learned skills. After learning the theory on how to drive a car, you still cannot drive a real car. Practical experience is essential. You need an SAP system to work with.
You’ll get access an SAP system at customer projects and with it, ERP data, as well as the whole structure of an ERP system. There are several walls built that you must tear down to enter the SAP world:
Starting from zero and you want to learn ABAP or Sales or FI only with SAP training is like climbing an 8.000m mountain on your first try at mountaineering. To explore and do some deep dives of the learned materials, system access is needed. Best 24/7 as you never know when you might want to try something out. Such SAP systems for learning, that are fully configured, with modules, a solution landscape and available at (close to) no costs are not available. You can go for trials and free tier and get isolated systems, not an SAP landscape. And you need business data too. Those you only get when a customer adds you to their team, which they consider after you have x years of experience, which you don’t gain easily, as … do you see the problem?
SAP projects rarely start with no history data, no legacy. That’s where the innovation projects have a vantage compared to SAP projects: they don’t have to care too much about legacy. They can move fast and break things. The team gets an award if they do as a thank you for driving innovation. If an SAP project does the same, they get called to the CEO and must explain why the sales process was unavailable for 36 hours.
To get to a certain level of SAP knowledge you must invest heavily. Besides money, time is the most valuable resource you can invest. If you decide to learn and spend each day longer in the office or a weekend, that time you never get back. You invested a part of your live time. Doing is possible when working in a project, learning should be provided by the employer. Time depends on you and is a critical factor.
Project scopes are increasing, pressure too. Rollouts are done more frequently, systems change faster, new capabilities must be added in a speed no one thought is possible 10 years ago. With COVID-19, the pressure increased, competition is global. Time is crucial. As it is impossible to multiply time, information must be given in a way to use time most efficiently.
To make the most out of the very limited time resource, information must be made available when needed, in a way that allows to consume it efficiently, to provide exactly the pieces of information needed right at that moment to solve the given issue. And that is really a big issue. That’s the one crucial part where it is easier to go to e.g., Azure and to get the information needed to solve an issue at a project. That is why juniors do not opt to go to SAP.
But it was only fantasy.
The wall was too high,
As you can see.
No matter how he tried,
He could not break free.
As you can see from the examples above, the road to SAP is not paved, it is blocked by walls. It takes a lot of time to master only a fraction of what SAP offers. Training people and convince them that SAP is great, make it easy to work with SAP systems, that’s a task for SAP. When a new opportunity arises for a person that involves SAP, it must be as easy to choose to enter that path, then it is to go for the non-SAP alternative. From the walls mentioned above, SAP can tear down only their own and transform the SAP (learning) experience.
SAP is trying to make it easier to learn, making learning more accessible: online, virtual, learning hub, flatrate, openSAP, developers, trials, tutorials, free tier, etc. But how do you learn incident management, handling of purchase orders, HR information, FI process, year end closing? You need business data for this. Where is the business data? What can help?
- Access (free/low cost) to SAP systems (ERP, Analytics) with business data to work with. For instance, an S/4HANA IDES System that you install via VM/Docker locally or run in a cloud/trial without costing a fortune.
- Access to complex ERP landscapes: with S/4HANA, Analytics, CRM, on premise and cloud systems. SAP decided to split up their integrated ERP system. To master the new complexity and understand how to work with Concur, Ariba, SuccessFactors, S/4HANA one system is not enough. And if you want to learn how to transport, a small landscape with SolMan is needed.
- Free training for technical and functional topics
- Provide business use cases that people can try to solve on the system. SAP has extensive knowledge on business use cases they can demonstrate. Let new joiners to SAP gain experience with these use cases.
- Provide extensive business data. Not only data to mock services, but also “living” data. In real life, a sales order is created, sometimes changed, canceled or not fulfilled. All of this you learn on a real project. But its better to learn these things before learning it the hard way. This real world data is needed as input to use cases. Generations of SAP developers learned ABAP with the flight sample. One of the reasons it is still used is the sample data generation wizard. You always get fresh data.
The current situation puts SAP into disadvantage. It is not enough to provide the technical stuff. Albeit running a NetWeaver ABAP system is possible today for everyone, resource requisites are still high (and you don’t get free ABAP learning courses – yet?). Learning ABAP from what is freely available is a challenge. If you want to understand better an ERP process, like order to cash, hire to retire, issue to resolution, you are in an even worse situation as you need a configured SAP system with business data. Learning how to customize or enhance the process? Getting access to complex systems with data? Possible, but not easy.
Adjusting one aspect will help. SAP can make their learnings available for free (like Microsoft Learn). But then an SAP system to try out the examples of the learning is needed. Knowing how to write an OData service is not enough, as you might have to create incidents / notifications for functional locations. So you need a configured system. With data. And a single system may not be enough, as it is a mobile scenario. That might later involve Ariba or HR. Just the technical setup is not enough. Business data, mocked or “live” is needed.
I see that actions are taken at SAP. Each one addressing an area of specific case. Each action alone helps, but there is so much more potential that is not fostered. What I do not see as an overarching vision how these will transform the learning of SAP. What is the future of onboarding people to the SAP universe? How to ensure that opting for a career in SAP and becoming an expert is the new normal?